Janresseger: How the Nation’s Two Oldest School Voucher Programs Are Working: Part I—Wisconsin

School voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland are now over twenty-five years old.  Now both states have expanded statewide what began as stand-alone, big-city programs, and last week, local newspapers in Milwaukee and Cleveland examined these programs.  Today’s post will look at last week’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s report on Wisconsin vouchers; tomorrow’s will look at Patrick O’Donnell’s recent Plain Dealer report on vouchers in Cleveland and Ohio.

Underneath both of these reports are some realities. Wisconsin and Ohio are among the 25 states today where conservative Republicans control the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature. In both states, school vouchers have created a set of private schools that receive public tax dollars. Both voucher programs are relatively small compared to the public schools that serve the mass of each state’s children.

In the new exploration of Wisconsin vouchers, Erin Richards explains: While President Donald Trump is pitching to boost federal spending on school choice programs by $1.4 billion—a down payment on his promise of $20 billion—Wisconsin is already demonstrating the complexities of expanding private-school choice to exurban America. Now that private schools outside of densely populated Milwaukee and Racine can tap into voucher funding, new tensions are bubbling up between religious conservatives eager to offer more students a religious-based education and district advocates who fear losing resources to private schools now competing for the same pot of public dollars… To qualify for a voucher in the statewide program, students have to come from families earning no more than 185% of the federal poverty level, or about $45,000 for a family of four or about $52,000 if the parents are married. The income limit for Racine and Milwaukee programs is 300% of the federal poverty level.”

Milwaukee’s voucher program dates back to 1990: “Milwaukee hosts the country’s longest-running urban school voucher program.  For decades, Wisconsin’s outstate city and school leaders watched from a distance the constant opening and shuttering of private schools in the 27-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program—and the battles over funding and accountability… Then in 2011, the GOP-led Legislature approved replicating the Milwaukee voucher program in Racine… Two years later, Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a statewide expansion and a separate special-needs voucher program.”  “State law caps voucher-student enrollment at 2% of a district’s population this year, a figure that is rising 1% each subsequent year of the program—unless lawmakers act to lift the cap more quickly.”

Wisconsin’s statewide program also involves a required local school district tax assessment as a local contribution to each voucher. In an FAQ published before the current statewide program was passed in 2013, the Wisconsin School Boards Association explained how the breakdown of state-local contributions would be likely to work: “Under current law, the state pays 61.6 percent of the total cost of the voucher (or about $3,969 per voucher student) directly. The remaining 38.4 percent of the voucher (or about $2,474 per voucher student) is paid by the school district in which a voucher program is located (currently either Milwaukee Public Schools or Racine Unified) through a reduction in its general equalization aid entitlement each year. The proposed budget would continue this model as the funding mechanism for voucher expansion.”

Describing the statewide program in operation today, Richards adds that, “Starting last year, state law called for districts to raise taxes to pay for local students using vouchers—whether they were already enrolled in a private school or not.  The cost shows up on a homeowner’s property tax bill as part of the public school levy… There’s no separate line item telling taxpayers the cost of the voucher program in their district.”  The voucher millage is in essence a hidden local tax assessment.

Richards describes the operation of the voucher program in the small, 2000-student, Waupun Area School District, where residents were taxed for 18 students attending a local Christian school, 17 of them already students at the private school when they were awarded a voucher. Waupun’s public school superintendent explains that the Christian school received $148,000 in tax dollars last year and worries about what will happen if the voucher program grows: “I don’t want public schools to be seen as the dumping ground as we get years down the road with vouchers… Like, if you have special needs or mental health problems, you come here but all the elite kids get to go to the private school.”

Richards summarizes the concerns of school superintendents across Wisconsin as the program expands; “Some public school administrators worry about the future of their own resources as the cap on the number of local students who can use vouchers rises… Many public-school leaders philosophically oppose the idea of taxpayers paying for religious education, especially without the same accountability.”

Richards describes tension at a Lutheran church in Watertown, a city between Milwaukee and Madison with 12 religious schools. At Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, despite that a church member who is a former public school principal organized a protest when the church’s parochial school sought to join the voucher program, church members voted overwhelmingly to have their school begin accepting vouchers: “Good Shepherd received approximately $70,000 in additional revenue last year for 11 children who qualified for the subsidies. All but three were already enrolled in the private school….”

Richards also describes a Catholic school in Chilton that recently joined the voucher program. Enrollment had dropped from 140 to only 83 students and there is hope that the vouchers will save the school.  Last month in an earlier article in the Journal Sentinel‘s series on vouchers, Richards reported on a study of the role of vouchers for keeping open Catholic schools: “The study concludes that vouchers are the dominant source of funding for many parishes and greatly reduced the likelihood of them closing or merging.”

Richards’ report centers on the fiscal implications of vouchers—whether Wisconsin’s state education budget ought to be supporting parochial school tuition—especially for students who already attend religious schools and have never been enrolled in a public school—and whether it is the responsibility of local tax payers to levy millage that may build enrollment in private religious schools at the expense of addressing the needs of the mass of children enrolled in public schools.

For additional recent in-depth coverage of Milwaukee vouchers, check out Erin Richards’ piece in the winter, 2017 American Prospect, and Barbara Miner’s February commentary in the Los Angeles Times.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...